Understanding & Dealing with Loneliness

Understanding & Dealing with Loneliness

by Ashley

The Blackdog Institute describes loneliness as being ‘that negative feeling that arises when our social needs are unmet by the quantity and quality of our current social relationships’. Loneliness can be experienced by all people no matter their age, gender, race, country, job or income.  Some people find it hard to connect with others or form meaningful friendships, this results in the feelings of loneliness as a result. This article explains reasons people might be lonely and how to deal with loneliness when you experience it.

Alone vs Lonely

To understand loneliness, it is important to understand that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. It is a common misconception that they mean the same thing. Feeling lonely is an unpleasant feeling which is followed by feelings of sadness and loss of connection. An example of this is where a person can still feel this while being in a crowded room full of people. Being alone is being without the company of others and spending time on your own. In this alone time some people can feel quite content and peaceful in their own solitude without feeling any loneliness at all. A person can also be alone whist feeling lonely, thus the number of friends or acquaintances we have does not influence our feelings. Rather, it Is the quality of those relationships that determines how lonely we feel. 

Reasons for Loneliness

Relationship Status

In some cultures, there is pressure to have children and be married by certain ages, this pressure mixed with the lack of contentment of being single can sometimes lead people to start making life choices based on those feelings. In some western countries such as Australia and America, being single is a preference if you have strong family ties and friendships. People can be single without feeling lonely, if you feel both single and lonely it can be harder to deal with the pressure of external expectations to be in a relationship or married.

Although, it has been found that about 60% of married people feel lonely, this is generally due to the relationship becoming monotonous or their feelings for their partner start to fade. This emphasises why the quality of connection with other people is important and that loneliness is not based on if we are by ourselves.

Human connection replaced by technology

in our modern world we are all constantly connected by technology such as smartphones and tablets. With this constant connection it would be assumed that people would be less lonely, however unfortunately this is not always the case. In fact, in many instances technology causes people to become more disconnected if they are not engaging in meaningful face to face connection also. If you reflect on your own friendships how many people do you not see in person anymore because you connect over technology instead? This issue varies with ages as older people generally do not use or have used technology for much of their lives.

Being Mistreated or Abused

A person’s past experiences can impact the extent of their feelings of loneliness, such as events where they have been lied to, abandoned or rejected by family or friends. This can cause people to develop defensive walls to protect themselves from getting hurt again, which often ends up in having the person shut people out, even if those other people are genuinely nice and are there to help and support them. This makes it really difficult for these people to form close connections with people resulting in loneliness.

Missing or losing someone

There comes a time in our lives when someone special leaves whether through the relationship becoming distant or estranged, or due to a passing. This can be a partner, friend or family member or someone in your community. Abandonment due to whatever reason for the loss can bring intense feelings of loneliness. Losing a loved one brings on the feeling that they are no longer there for you or close to you.

Not fitting in

People who do not fit in often feel as if they are not able to connect with other people in a meaningful way. They often feel as if they are different to others and struggle to relate to them. This is a feeling of social isolation and has been referred to as the ‘Social Isolation’ schema by Jeffrey Young of Schema Therapy. People with chronic loneliness can feel as if they don’t fit in anywhere or they are not able to connect with others. Many people who experience these feelings of social isolation often try to change themselves in order to fit in with others. The feeling of being included and accepted by other people allows us to feel more connected, leading us to feel less lonely. Jeffrey Young explains that this schema can develop due to if your family of origin was noticeably different from other families around you, perhaps due to differences in ethnicity, religion or financial status. This schema can also develop if you and your family moved around often which prevented you from getting the opportunity to develop strong friendships and connections as you were always the new kid. It can also develop if you have characteristics that sets you apart from others making you prone to being bullied by other kids, such as having a disability, a disfigurement or a personality style that is different to most other people. The good news is that this Social Isolation schema can absolutely be worked on and healed to help you to feel more included and accepted by others regardless of who you are or your background.

How loneliness can be dangerous

Research has shown that people who report higher levels of loneliness are found to have significantly poorer physical and mental health compared to those whom report less levels of loneliness. For example, it has been found in a study at the University of Chicago that doctors where able to provide better medical care to patients who had close relatives and to those who were not socially isolated. Loneliness has also shown to negatively impact people’s quality of sleep as loneliness causes people to wake up more often at night and sleep less. Loneliness has also been linked to having more headache symptoms, stomach complaints and more frequent respiratory infections. It has also been linked with higher blood pressure, higher levels of stress hormones and compromises the regulation of circulatory systems. This can lead to high functions of the heart muscle which ultimately makes the heart work harder and this higher amount of blood flow can damage blood vessels.

Loneliness is also detrimental for mental health. It increases the rate of depression and anxiety, including anxiety about participating in social situations all which in turn increase the risk of loneliness. Lonely people are also more likely to feel stressed and have less resilience for coping with stressors and have lower self-esteem. The risk of suicide is increased by people who live alone in all age groups who report high levels of loneliness.

How to cope with loneliness

Make a plan

Identify when during your day you are feeling most lonely. The majority of people feel most lonely at night time or on weekends, usually because they don’t have the distractions of work or daily tasks. Pre-plan your week so you can organise activities with other people at these times such as go out to a restaurant, arrange get together, see your friends and family, join a sports or hobby club. Social media sites such as meetup.com can offer a wide range of activities to allow you to meetup and connect with others. The important word here is pre-plan; arrange your social activities in advance so you have something already in place before you get to the weekend with nothing planned and you’re feeling lonely. Even if you’re worried about asking someone to do something with you out of fear they might not be interested or busy, just ask anyway – you never know what the response might be, it could be positive!

Go solo

You do not necessarily need other people to do activities with as there are many activities that can be done solo such as going for a walk, to the beach, or having a nice drink at a cafe. People who do not do activities alone such as go to the gym or beach are often self-conscious and feel that they want a person with them to feel safe. Ask yourself how do you know what others think and why does it matter what they think? Doing things alone can be a great way to meet new people. For example, if you enjoy reading or dancing why not join a club where you can meet likeminded people.

Appreciate yourself

Be compassionate, accept and love yourself more than what you already are. People who are lonely tend to struggle with these feelings towards themselves which tends to increase feelings of loneliness. To cultivate more acceptance, compassion and love for yourself, do a self-love meditation, give yourself a manicure, take yourself out for a massage, speak kind words towards yourself when you feel the need to speak critical to yourself, engage in healthy lifestyle habits such as giving yourself the time to have enough sleep, say no to things that don’t serve you anymore, surround yourself with loving people, ask for the support you need from others.

Get involved

A great way to feel connected to other people is to volunteer. It will help you to feel appreciated for the work you are doing and it’s hard to feel lonely when you’re taking care of someone or something else. There are many volunteer ideas including at your local school, sporting club or church, fire and rescue services, hospitals and nursing homes, disability and mental health foundations, homeless foundations, op-shops, animal shelters and more. To volunteer you do not need to engage with an actual volunteer organisation – you can always offer to volunteer yourself to the people around you where you see an opportunity to help out.

Spend time with people & animals

Social media should not be used as a substitute for real face to face communication. Contact a friend or relative and talk about your common interests, also communicate about your thoughts and feelings. Talking about your feelings can help create a more intimate relationship with that person. Having a pet can make you feel less lonely and reduce the feeling of isolation.

Loneliness is common

It has been found by a university in Chicago that the feeling of loneliness has increased by 50% in the last two decades. This can be due to the decline in family connections, higher divorce rates, increase of technology replacing face-to-face interactions and people are participating less frequently in social and community organisations. Loneliness is becoming widespread, many people are feeling lonely, but they do not show it. It Is important to come up with strategies to for people to deal with loneliness and to improve connection. It’s important to remember when getting through loneliness that loneliness is a transient emotion; you will not feel it indefinitely, it will soon pass. In the meantime, work on the above strategies to lessen the feelings of loneliness over time.

As mentioned above, loneliness is often associated with depression and sleep problems.

If you are feeling depressed, check out our online depression course: ‘Overcoming Depression’ which will help you to better understand and working through depression.

If you are having trouble with sleep, check out our online insomnia course to improve your sleep quality and quantity: ‘Restful Sleep in 7 Days.

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